Nobel Laureate Economist Robert Solow’s Clarion Call to End Child Poverty

August 23 marks the 95th birthday of the great MIT Nobel laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Robert Solow. As family and friends join him for this milestone, all of us at the Children’s Defense Fund send our deepest gratitude for his generous sharing of expertise, wisdom and concern for America’s children, especially those left behind in poverty. He bolstered CDF’s repeated calls over the decades to end child poverty with impeccable dollars and cents data. What is it going to take to get our money driven, morally impoverished nation to open up America’s dream to all 12.8 million children living in poverty—nearly 5.9 million in extreme poverty?

In his foreword to CDF’s 1994 report Wasting America’s Future, Dr. Solow wrote: “For many years, Americans have allowed child poverty levels to remain astonishingly high—higher than for American adults; higher than for children in nations that are our competitors; higher than from the entire period of the late 1960s and 1970s, a period when we had less wealth as a nation than we do now; and far higher than one would think a rich and ethical society would tolerate. The justification, when one is offered at all, has often been that action is expensive: ‘We have more will than wallet.’ I suspect that in fact our wallets exceed our will, but in any event this concern for the drain on our resources completely misses the other side of the equation: Inaction has its costs, too.”

He continued: “Now, possibly for the first time, we have evidence that we can save money by reducing children’s poverty. The evidence in this volume indicates that ending child poverty is, at the very least, highly affordable. More likely it is a gain to the economy, and to the businesses, taxpayers, and citizens within it. But that should be the icing on the cake. Nobody in this age is so callous as to think of children foremost as a source of profit—at least I hope not. As an economist, I believe that good things are worth paying for, and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive in the long run, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money. If society cares about children, it should be willing to spend money on them.”

Dr. Solow’s words twenty-five years ago were a clarion call to act and make ending child poverty our top national priority. But we still lack the moral decency and economic common sense as a nation to act with urgency to save and improve millions of child lives. Why are we still struggling to take his words to heart and deed?

In 2015 CDF published our anchor child poverty report showing how our nation could immediately help millions of children escape poverty by investing in nine existing policies and programs. In April 2019, we issued another report urging an immediate down payment to end preventable and costly child poverty by investing a small percentage of our federal budget into these proven policies. For $52.3 billion—just 1.4 percent of federal spending and 0.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)—we could reduce child poverty at least 57 percent and give 5.5 million children a chance for a better future. It is morally indefensible and economically foolish that our President and Congressional leaders approved nearly $2 trillion dollars in tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations in 2017 while leaving behind more than 12.8 million children in poverty. Every dollar invested in reducing child poverty returns at least seven dollars to our economy, invests in our nation’s future and may help save our nation’s soul.

Dr. Solow warned inaction has enormous costs and that every year we leave so many millions of children in poverty costs our nation hundreds of billions of dollars. Today we lose about $700 billion a year in lost productivity and increased health and crime costs from child poverty.

Ending child poverty must become our most urgent economic priority. Nothing is more important than saving millions of children’s lives and futures. We have the money. We have the power. We have the know-how. What we lack is the moral will and economic common sense to do what is both right and cost effective. As Dr. Solow wrote: “If society cares about children, it should be willing to spend money on them.” It is way past time to act on his wise words and save our nation’s future and soul. Happy birthday to a great man and wishes for many, many more!